Bok 40th

May 9, 2016
Bok 40_3

At the May 5 kick-off event for the Bok Center’s 40th anniversary celebration, former Harvard president Derek Bok recalled his first speech to the faculty, in 1971 when his term began, which he devoted to the subject of teaching.  Afterward Bok spoke to his friend the eminent physicist Gerald Holton, “and I asked him, Gerry, how did it go?  And he said, well, 80 percent of the faculty have given up on you.”

Bok’s recollection, on stage and in conversation with current Harvard president Drew Faust, was greeted with laughter, and it came in the middle of a passage on how old “passive” ways of teaching, meaning the universal practice of lecturing (which Bok called “the situation that I inherited”) had, over time, been supplanted by much richer “active ways of learning” through “a portfolio of teaching techniques.”  Now, over two days in May, with many former Bok Center staff and former Harvard graduate students in attendance, along with a copious contemporary Harvard audience, the Bok Center proposed to study the ways a teaching and learning center, now common on American campuses as it hadn’t been in 1975, had transcended its origins as a support center for struggling or inexperienced instructors to become its own research powerhouse in a field of deep national interest.

The Bok Center began in 1975 as the Danforth Center for Teaching and Learning, named for the Danforth Foundation of St. Louis whose initial $205,000 grant funded the endeavor, as did their grants for similar centers at four other American universities.  Soon Harvard would take over the funding entirely and in 1991 the center would be renamed for Bok, retiring that year after 20 years in the Harvard presidency, as a gesture of thanks from the faculty for the man who had made undergraduate teaching so much the hallmark of his tenure.  (Apparently they hadn’t given up on him after all.)

Like many things that are forty years old or more, the Bok Center has changed, while remaining the same.  A full generation of Harvard graduates will think of the Bok Center for one thing only, videotaping.  This is indeed how it began, with the main goal of videotaping Harvard instructors, almost all graduate students, who could then reflect on seeing themselves, their idiosyncrasies in plain view, lead a classroom, in consultation with a staff member.  An old crimson-colored sign, made of wood, for “The Harvard Danforth Center for Teaching and Learning Video Laboratory,” remains a valued artifact on top of a small cabinet in the third floor corner of the Science Center that the Bok Center has occupied for all these years.  But still, in 2016, senior associate director Virginia Maurer says, in words echoed often by her colleagues, that “Just to have every graduate student taped once, if possible. . . if there’s nothing else we did, that would be huge.”

Despite its emphasis and many choice anecdotes about watching one’s own teaching on video (“a French section leader twirls her hair anxiously. . .”), a 1978 Crimson article confirms that even in its infancy, the Center hosted seminars and luncheons on teaching while “supporting departmental training programs for teachers of introductory courses and tutorials,” just as it does now.  Forty years later, the word “training,” however, doesn’t seem right for Bok, nor even the more recent motto that Robert Lue remembers from before he was named director in March 2013, “Supporting Instruction in Harvard College.”  Lue decided that really what Bok does – what it has always done – isn’t “training” but “cultivation.” “Training is much narrower and tightly defined, suggesting a singular relationship of trainee to trainer.  Cultivation is more holistic, about cultivating awareness, intellectual engagement, tools – and yes, the training you need to do things!”

In the anniversary year, and seeking to push the Center into its next several – or even forty – years, Lue and his colleagues have identified the phrase “Discovery, Cultivation, and Research” to describe the work of the Bok Center.  The Bok 40 celebration was organized accordingly, with a second day, May 6, devoted to successive panels on each of the three topics, each shining a close light on a particular feature of discovery, cultivation and research, and concluded by “active breaks” with discussion prompts.  A goal of Bok 40, says associate director Adam Beaver, was to generate lots of teaching ideas by putting attendees to work.  Sure, it was a two-day party but rather than celebratory speeches one after the other, the audience would be expected to be actively learning, participating, and sharing.  The ideas generated in the active breaks—dozens of them, in the end—would all be recorded on a spreadsheet, and the Bok staff expect to come back to many of them over the coming year.

Immediately following the opening “Discovery” session at the Bok 40 symposium came a session on “Cultivation.”  During the ensuing active break, also known as lunch, participants ate and, says Lue, kept returning to an argument made poignantly by Harvard historian Jill Lepore.  “She spoke of students’ fear of commitment, in argument, and how instead of looking at a range of interpretations and committing to one, they see options A, B and C and are paralyzed.”  Roaming the tables, Lue was hearing the same concern from faculty in fields “as disparate as Chemistry and French literature,” along with the sneaking suspicion that, perhaps, “we faculty have done our bit to contribute to it.”  The problem—one, in the larger scheme, of cultivation—was that across the fields, including his own field of cell biology, students “don’t land, and they need to land to do the next thing.”

“To land”—or enabling students to land—is perhaps the informal statement of the Bok Center’s mission in a new era of learning.  According to faculty director Rob Lue, “the way we view teaching has truly changed—from being fixed, static, deterministic, to something exploratory but based on growing body of evidence.”  The abundant new data on methods of active engagement, plus data on supporting a more diverse body of students, has given pedagogy professionals “a foundation to experiment in a more purposeful way.”

This “sea change,” as Lue calls it, came from a combination of cognitive science, or how the brain works—and the recognition that human beings are not the same: “It’s the same revelation as in medicine, and it’s coupled with a real appetite around teaching.  If we don’t do something significant, we’re squandering an opportunity.  There’s such energy around it now.”  

As a Harvard graduate student himself in the late ‘80s, then a young lecturer in Biological Sciences, Lue remembers how even then Bok Center staff pushed him “on different modes of presenting materials; to unpack material in more than one way.  I realized then one could have a reflective practice around teaching.”  Becoming this kind of reflective teacher pointed him, over many years of teaching in big life sciences courses in Harvard College, toward a powerful interest in assessment, namely gathering evidence on what really worked in teaching.  “When I was a graduate student, gathering evidence was something I did in my science.  It was not something I did in my teaching.”  Once Lue became Bok Center director, a burgeoning organization-wide interest in assessment became more firmly institutionalized with Jenny Bergeron becoming the first-ever director of educational research and assessment, working with increasing numbers of faculty across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and even the professional schools, on using data to evaluate student learning in courses across many disciplines.  

The assessment team fills the “Research” pillar of the Bok Center trinity.  As for the “Discovery” pillar, it is often a scholarly endeavor but sometimes an eminently practical one, and over 2015-16, Lue’s team opened the Learning Lab, run by Marlon Kuzmick, by renovating part of the old, cramped space on the Science Center’s third floor to make way for a studio filled with digital video and audio equipment whose centerpiece is an enormous raised table over which faculty, teaching fellows and Bok staff can review, for instance, hundreds of photographs of artwork or museum artifacts and film these brainstorming sessions for specific Harvard courses. 

On the surface, the Learning Lab appears to be high-tech, and Lue admits he’s known as a “tech maven,” but in reality it’s the space for whatever idea or problem a Harvard faculty member wants to start a conversation with.  As Beaver says, “our bread-and-butter was always the graduate student who said I haven’t done well in my Q [student course] evaluations, and I need help, and probably it always will be.  But now you as an instructor can embed yourself in the learning lab and develop an unheard-of assignment for your course, and a year later, our assessment team can evaluate it.  This is all new.  We’re just as good at diagnosis and problem-solving, but we’re a lab and a research team and built for collaboration.”

The term for this mix or whirl of discovery, cultivation and research all at the same time is Bok 360, and it’s part of conceiving the Bok Center as, in Beaver’s words, “an academic department and not a service center.”  Years or decades ago, Bok administrators might have read studies of work conducted elsewhere, extracted principles and adapted them for workshops for new instructors at the fall teaching conference or similar events, but now the Bok Center is producing some of the knowledge itself.  

As Beaver puts it, faculty now don’t just say, “I taught my course, this piece didn’t work out, can you help me fix it?  It’s more, I’m going to teach this course, and what should be in it?” 

Finally there is leadership.  As he told the audience during the opening event of Bok 40, when Derek Bok began his first presidency in 1971 (he would return for one year as interim president in 2006) he was teased for having lost the faculty by his effrontery in speaking passionately about teaching.  Lue credits Drew Faust, sharing the stage with Bok during the anniversary fete, with “signaling” the crucial importance of teaching to the scholarly endeavor for her entire presidency—and “stating it too” in innumerable public speeches, donor meetings, ad hoc sessions on tenure appointments and more.  For a teaching and learning center, a university president can create “a moment of openness and willingness to what we do,” and the procession of senior faculty through the Learning Lab in just the last year, along with increased engagement of the assessment team for major projects in Harvard College like General Education and House Renewal, and for in-depth evaluation of a new degree program in the School of Public Health, might suggest that’s exactly what’s happened in the past nine years.

The question of incentives is crucial, however, and as the postwar American research university reached its dominant worldwide position its incentives became firmly aligned toward rewarding faculty research and scholarship, and not so much toward rewarding teaching.  Something so deeply ingrained in academic culture might appear to be beyond even the Bok Center’s influence.  But the Center is trying.  In the 2016-17 academic year, two senior faculty from different Schools, Richard Light from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and American Literature professor Elisa New from FAS, will be faculty fellows.  Together with Bok colleagues, Light and New will be embarking on large scale projects that develop new ways of creating and disseminating activities that are central to the Bok Center – teaching and assessment.

A teaching and learning center, Lue says, has always been about support and to a large extent it still is.  The difference now is that cognitive science has shown that understanding and aligning human emotions with teaching and learning is really what drives understanding.  As a cell biologist teaching Harvard undergraduates, he wants to “take their understanding of human health-related scenarios, use cell biology and have them express it with the emotion of human narrative.”  To do that he needs “creative maneuvers from the humanities, but in science.”  At the May 6 “Discovery” session, Harvard professor Alyssa Goodman spoke of how her field, astronomy, was being transformed by another field, probability.  For the Bok Center for all the years to come, the work will always be interdisciplinary, informed by the idea that, as Lue says, “learning happens anywhere, anytime, in any modality imaginable.”